The fog lay thick over the icy fields and pale stone streets, cloaking Oxford’s frozen ground. The spectres of sandstone buildings loomed as Thursday navigated through the narrow roads, shadowy spires piercing upwards towards the grey sky.
The trains were rarely punctual, but as he pulled up outside the train station he saw the rising column of smoke approaching in the distance, heavy engine pounding down towards the tiny station. He turned off the car and stepped out, gloved hand closing the door before wrapping his scarf tight about his neck. He found the damp cold far worse than the dry, its hungry claws piercing bone-deep. The Jag’s engine clicked quietly to itself as it began to cool; he passed it by and headed inside towards the waiting room.
The train came to a slow halt on the platform and the doors were opened from the inside by passengers streaming out – mostly homing residents, the students having flocked out of the town for the holiday.
It wasn’t long before Thursday heard the tapping of the stick – heard it before he saw Morse, mixed in with the other passengers. They thinned out entering the station building, and he stepped forward.
Morse had a roughened look to him, as though he were unravelling around the edges. His thin face was tired and drawn, shadows under his eyes and prominent cheekbones. He hadn’t shaved in days, his jaw covered with pale bristles. As always he was wearing a light car coat, without scarf or gloves. He had a lonely, forgotten feel to him. When he walked, it was with a clear, pained stiffness in his right hip.
“Morse,” called Thursday, privately dismayed by his appearance. He had been a shadow of himself outside the slate-grey house in Lincolnshire, but few men stood up well in the wake of their father’s death – or a recent shooting. Now, several days later, he looked no better. Looked, if anything, more brittle and grimmer.
He raised his head at his name, shifting his grip on his cane. “You didn’t have to come,” the lad said, voice rough as though whetted.
“Told you I’d be here,” replied Thursday, stepping forward and taking his arm. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
Thursday felt a flare of irritation like the striking of a match. But then, perhaps the lad was entitled to be morbid. “Nonsense. Just in the past year, you’ve made a difference in a host of lives.”
Morse turned towards him, staring with sightless sky-blue eyes. “Two people are dead because of me,” he replied, flatly.
Thursday tightened his hands on the steering wheel. “You don’t think that’s a little grandiose? Slotting their deaths down as your own work? We may have caught Rosalind Stromming with your help, but she took her life with her own hand. As for Mrs Coke-Norris, she was the one who decided to try to shoot you – not the reverse. No call to go taking credit for things that aren’t your doing, lad.” He slowed to wait at a red light and glanced over at Morse again; the lad looked morose, mouth set in a scowl. “Besides, think of the lives you’ve saved. Mine, for one – more than once.”
“I never expected so much to start from one phone call,” said Morse softly.
“You’ve made a difference. That’s to be prized, Morse, not regretted.”
Morse sighed. “I’m not sure I can say the same.”
Outside the surrounding buildings were walls of darkness with square windows showing like cut-outs as light shone out. The street was empty of cars and pedestrians, the city quiet around them. The world felt cold and empty, not at all the sort of place to shove an injured man into on his own.
“I’ll help you up,” Thursday said, laying his hand on the door handle.
“Morse, you look like death warmed over. I’ll help you up.”
That settled, he got out and took Morse’s suitcase out of the back seat. By the time he had the door closed Morse had pulled himself out and was standing on the pavement, back hunched and favouring his right side. “Come along, then.” Thursday took his arm and led him inside.
The stairs, as it turned out, presented more of a challenge than expected. The first flight was alright, but by the second Morse was breathing hard, more of his weight leaning on Thursday’s arm. By the third his breaths were coming in short, harsh gasps, his shoulder against Thursday’s and his head held low. By the time they got to the top sweat was running down his face, his hands clenched so tight the skin was white.
They paused on the landing, Thursday waiting for Morse to get his breath back. “What did the doctor say?” asked Thursday.
Morse’s head canted up towards Thursday, then down. He swallowed, the sound audible in the quiet hall.
“Morse?” pressed Thursday.
“Haven’t seen one yet,” muttered Morse, raising a hand to straighten his collar.
“You what?” demanded Thursday, incredulously.
“I was busy, with the funeral, and my family, and… there just wasn’t time. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“You mean to tell me that bullet’s still in your leg? That you’ve been walking around this whole time with just DeBryn’s stitches holding you together?”
Morse bobbed his head once. One hand was gripping Thursday’s sleeve, the other was pressed against his hip. The hip still carrying Millicent Coke-Norris’ bullet.
Anger flared up in Thursday like a spark landing in a dust-dry field, the blaze sudden and hot. It ran over his skin in the space of a second, scorching into his blood and making it boil.
“Give me your key,” he ordered, freeing his arm of Morse’s hand and holding his own out.
“Your key,” repeated Thursday. Morse fumbled in his pockets and produced it, holding it out. Thursday took it and dragged Morse forward with him, slotting the key into the door when he reached it and stepping in to the tiny flat. “You’re going to see the police surgeon. Now.” He left Morse standing in the doorway and stormed over to the phone, picking it up and dialing.
“Dr Archibald’s surgery,” answered a pert female voice.
“DI Thursday. I have a man who needs to see the doctor; he’s got a bullet in his leg needs taking out.”
“Have you been to Casualty, sir?” asked the receptionist.
“No; it was inflicted several days ago. He saw a doctor on scene for a temporary stitch-up.”
“I’m afraid Dr Archibald’s fully booked up this afternoon. I can get him in first thing tomorrow.”
“He needs seeing to now,” protested Thursday sharply.
“You’re welcome to go to Casualty, sir, although for a simple surgery it will likely wait until tomorrow morning regardless,” replied the receptionist, unmoved.
“What time do you open tomorrow?”
“We’ll be there,” said Thursday grimly, and hung up.
By this time Morse had drifted into the flat and was standing by the table, one hand resting on a chair back. He had a pale, pinched look to him, somewhere between pained and irritated. “I can manage by myself,” he said.
“I think the past few days have proven that wrong,” replied Thursday, harshly. “Why don’t you sit down,” he bit back the words: before you fall down.
“I’m fine,” replied Morse, snappishly.
“You nearly busted a gut on the way up here; you’re far from fine. You’re lucky you haven’t come down with an infection yet, the way you’ve been flaunting that wound.”
Morse flushed angrily, fingers tightening on the back of the chair. Thursday forced himself to take a breath, tried to douse some of his anger. He forced his voice into a softer, gentler tone. “Look, lad, I know you can look after yourself in the normal course of events. Taking a bullet doesn’t qualify. That needs special care and treatment, so as to stop something minor becoming major. Understand?”
Silence fell for a moment, the tiny flat cold and somehow lonely in its pristine organization; this didn’t feel like a home, it felt like a place to sleep and no more. In one corner a paraffin heater stood, quiet and unlit; there was no other source of heat in the flat. Thursday walked over to it and opened the panel to light the wick, waiting for the flame to catch before closing the heater and rising. When he turned he saw that Morse had pulled out the chair and slumped into it, elbows on the table and fingers woven together to cradle his forehead. When he spoke his voice was low and close to breaking, with exhaustion rather than emotion.
“We don’t have a car. My parents, that is. After my father lost his license they sold it; needed the money. We live out in the country; paying for a cab to town to see the surgeon, on top of the funeral costs and my travel…” he shook his head without looking up.
“I would’ve lent you the money, Morse,” said Thursday, dismayed not only at Morse’s words but at the shame in them. “Or taken you into town the day I was there. All you had to do was ask.”
Morse raised his head; in the warm creamy glow of the light filtering down from overhead he looked worn, like old cloth that had seen too much use and was one tug away from tearing. “I’ve never been much of a hand at asking for help,” he said softly. “Independence has always been something to prize.”
“There’s independence, and then there’s pig-headedness,” replied Thursday promptly. “Asking a friend for help, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Morse gave a faint, slow smile. “Then will you give me a ride to the surgeon tomorrow?” he asked.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
“You should have seen him, Win, grey as a spectre and about ready to fall apart. The stairs to his flat nearly did him in; I thought he’d cark it right there on the landing. He’s so goddamn stubborn; won’t back down from a fight, even when he can hardly stand. Even when it’s in his own best interests.” He shook his head. “I’m taking him to the surgeon tomorrow, come hell or high water. But after that…”
That was the crux of it. The idea of leaving Morse alone in his tiny, frigid flat, up and down three flights of stairs at least once a day to fetch in food and necessities… Thursday couldn’t wear it.
“Why don’t you ask him over?” suggested Win, laying her hand on his knee. “He would have to kip on the sofa, but from what you’ve said of his flat, that would hardly be a hardship. And I’m sure he could use some feeding up; he’s whip-thin.”
“You wouldn’t mind?” asked Thursday, setting his drink down. “He’s not in the happiest of moods.”
“He’s just shy, Fred. And, with his father’s death, probably hurt. I’d hate to think of him all alone and grieving, and in pain on top of it. Besides, the company would do us both good.”
Thursday lent over to give her a kiss. “You’re one in a million, Win.”
Morse answered the door at the first knock, clearly waiting for Thursday’s arrival. He looked slightly better than the day before; his clothes were fresh, his hair damp and his jaw clean. But underneath it all there remained lingering traces of exhaustion and pain: dark bruises beneath his eyes, too-pale skin, a tightness at the corners of his mouth.
“Good morning,” said Thursday, keeping his tone bright and cheerful. “Ready to go?”
Together they walked slowly down the stairs, Morse once again starting out independent only to lean more and more heavily on Thursday as the trip progressed. By the bottom he had his arm over Thursday’s shoulder, face pinched with pain, teeth gritted against it.
“Here we are,” said Thursday softly, and helped him off the final stair. They rested a moment, Morse’s head hung low and his hand fisted tightly in the wool of Thursday’s coat, before leaving the building.
“I’ve a proposition for you, Morse,” said Thursday, as he got in the car, Morse already settled in the passenger seat. “Win would like some company, and you’d be better off not having to cope with those stairs for a few days. How about coming to stay with us? We’d see you well taken care of, and you could bring your records and anything else you liked. It’d mean kipping on the sofa, but it’s probably nearly as comfortable as that antique mattress you sleep on now.”
Morse’s sightless eyes were wide with surprise, the pain momentarily gone from his face. “I couldn’t impose on you,” he demurred, shaking his head.
“No imposition, lad. We’d be glad to have you. Win can’t stand the idea of you all alone with no one to mother you. Nor can I, truth be told,” he added, more slowly. “You think on it; let me know once you’ve seen the surgeon.”
Morse nodded. “Alright. Thank you.”
There was a pile of uninteresting magazines and the day’s Mail on the table, Thursday eventually scooped up the paper and flipped through it. There was a short article about Dr Kern’s funeral; Thursday glanced at it, then turned the page.
He came at last to the crossword and stopped there.
It had been the crossword that had proven Morse’s bona fides in their first case together, the clues giving the location of the murdered girl. Since then he had only further proven his worth, both as an amateur detective and a friend – solving two further murders, and saving Thursday’s life twice. And, incidentally, taking a knife to the side and a bullet to the leg for his troubles. Not that he’d let either slow him down.
Thursday shook his head and turned his attention to the crossword.
“Morse? You alright?”
“Feel a bit fuzzy,” he said, blinking widely.
“It’s the morphine,” said the surgeon, coming through the door behind him. “It will wear off in a couple of hours. I’ve given him a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics, the instructions are with the prescription. He’s to have bed rest for the next three days, and to take it easy for a week after that. The better the wound heals now, the less likely it will be to have future ramifications. Understand, Mr Morse?” he repeated heavily. Morse nodded.
“Alright. Come on, let’s get you home.” Thursday took Morse’s arm and ushered him out. Morse walked slowly and crookedly, head falling on Thursday’s shoulder.
“You’re coming over,” he told Morse as he packed the limp man into the passenger seat. “No ifs ands or buts.”
“What?” asked Morse, head resting against the back of the seat, eyes closed.
“I’m taking you home,” said Thursday.
Thursday let him sleep all the way to the house, pulling the car up opposite the front door and putting on the brake.
In his sleep, Morse looked peaceful as he never did otherwise. Awake, Morse was in constant motion, his body an extension of his mind which never stopped turning, never for a second paused. He only stilled to prepare for an outburst, as if conserving energy prior to expending it.
In the half-year since they had met, Thursday realized, he had never seen him look truly at ease, truly happy.
Feeling maudlin, Thursday reached out and shook Morse’s shoulder. “Come on, lad, time to get out.”
Morse woke slowly, taking a deep breath and rolling his head before sitting up. It was a surprisingly heart-warming moment, Morse for once soft and pliant. “Hm?”
“We’re here. At home. Let’s get you out.” He came around the far side of the Jag and opened Morse’s door. Morse unfolded himself gradually, keeping most of his weight off his right side. He let Thursday pull his arm over the DI’s shoulder without protest, and walked up the pavement with him. About halfway there he stopped, looking around with a frown.
“Where is this?” he asked, confused.
“My house,” answered Thursday, slowly.
“You said we were going home,” protested Morse.
“Yes, Morse. My home. Yours is an ice box up three flights of stairs. Come along; you’ll feel better inside.”
Morse didn’t put up a fight, but he did dawdle as they finished the walk up the pavement, clearly uncertain about this turn of events.
Thursday unlocked the front door and let them into the warmth of the house; it was rarely this warm in the winter, clearly Win had turned up the heating in preparation.
Thursday hung up their coats as Win came down the stairs, her clothes covered over with an apron and a duster in her hand. “Oh, Fred, you’re home. And Morse – so good to see you.” She came over to give Fred a hug and, to Morse’s clear surprise, gave him one as well. “I was so sorry to hear about your father,” she said, voice low. Morse bobbed his head silently, mouth opening once and then closing soundlessly.
“Come on through to the den,” said Thursday, leading Morse through and settling him down on the sofa. “You’d better sleep off that morphine – I’ll run out and fill your prescriptions.”
Morse handed up the paper without complaint, clearly tired and out of sorts. Win brought in a pillow and a blanket for him; Morse took them with a blank expression.
“Get your head down,” advised Thursday, as Win tiptoed out.
Morse shook his head and turned to place the pillow at the end of the sofa. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Here’s yours,” she said, handing him his usual packet when he stopped in to say goodbye. He tucked it away in his pocket and gave her a peck.
“Keep an eye on him?”
“Of course, love.”